Common talk (and just about every critique group and workshop) says a writer should never use a prologue because prologues are so often written poorly. But… first chapters are often written poorly, too, as are fight scenes, descriptions, character backstory, depictions of horses, near-future science, and final chapters. But we do not advise writers to avoid writing them. We instead advise them to learn how to write them well.
So it should be with prologues. After all, not knowing how to write compelling prologues results in lots of bad prologues, which reinforces the mistaken notion that prologues are inherently terrible.
I’m no widely acclaimed or best selling author. I’m just a workaday gal who has to spend more time than others figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and why. So take my assessments with all the salt you wish.
Personally, I suggest smoked paprika instead. Or tarragon. Or fresh basil and black tea with a nice smoky whiskey…
Go ahead and add salt if you’d like.
So… Why write a prologue?
Let’s get the backstory question out of the way right now because, while prologues certainly don’t need to contain backstory, so many of them do.
If I put a heading of, “Indianapolis, 2015” above my novel’s first chapter, I have just supplied you with a massive amount of historical, social, and cultural backstory. The same thing happens if the heading is “Rome, 64 CE.” The reader might need a bit more information if the chapter heading is, “Qusqu, 1532,” but a couple sentences will settle the reader in space and time.
But stories set in secondary worlds lack the support of (usually) common historical knowledge. Thus there are many, many methods taught to writers who face the task of super-secretly teaching the reader about the new world’s unknown history that’ll drive the story forward.
Characters sit down to eat and/or have a drink, which seems to naturally trigger a very specific and story-relevant conversation about historical events or mythology. Or characters just happen to be researching something in the library, underground archives, university records hall, or some such, and must have a detailed conversation about the purpose and/or stakes of the search. Or an authority figure happens to deliver a lecture to a class, to wayward (chosen) children, or an especially gifted person who now Must Be Told the Truth. Or the characters happen to take a stroll through an historical site, or attend an ostensibly boring yet info-laden meeting, or discover a hidden packet of revelatory artifacts while, coincidentally, in the company of someone who knows absolutely nothing, thus giving the knowledgeable character reason to expound at length… You get the idea.
I came across one of those during a recent read, in fact. It’s a great story by a respected writer that came highly recommended… and the “Backstory Supper” is plopped right in the middle of an early chapter. It comes complete with Educated Person telling New Person With Obvious Purpose everything the reader needs to know to make sense of the world. I sighed and skimmed it with more exasperation than I would have a mediocre prologue , truly.
Y’see, all those backstory insertion strategies can be just as clunky as poorly written prologues. They’re a common source of “the later parts of the story dragged” critiques and reviews, and yet, for some reason, they’re considered far more worthy of a learning investment than prologues.
In addition to the super-secret nudge-wink methods of giving a reader blocks of backstory beneath the obvious, yet agreed upon as proper, veneer of action or conversation, there is the craft of disclosing backstory one small phrase or inference at a time. The reader’s experience becomes one of constant and subtle mental readjustments over the course of the story, because every backstory disclosure alters the character’s relationship to and with the world and plot.
I do love that as a reader. I love that type of story. But not every story needs to be, nor should be, the trickle-backstory-reveal tale. And not every piece of backstory is made for trickling.
So yes, a prologue can be an important tool for relaying large-scale backstory, especially the kind of backstory that would instead end up in one or more contrived scenes of thinly-disguised information delivery. It’s a means of introducing meta-events that will influence, drive, control, and overshadow the entire story with the same depth and power as, perhaps, a chapter heading of, “Paris, 1942.”
But discussing prologues solely in terms of establishing a story’s scope does them, and those who might write them, a great disservice. That way lies encyclopedic entries masquerading as story. The standard advice of, “Just make it compelling!” isn’t all that helpful because it prematurely leaves behind the question of purpose in favor of method, and assuming prologues exist for the sole purpose of relaying backstory is utterly disastrous.
Years and years ago, I was fortunate enough to act in a production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. It’s an incredibly awesome play about power, choice, justifications, and consequences, and it was the most challenging role I ever had the good fortune to take on.
But the role I found most awesome wasn’t mine. It was Chorus.
Chorus comes on stage to deliver the play’s first lines, and proceeds to talk to the audience for well over a thousand words. Chorus doesn’t interact with other characters here. They just tell the audience about them—who they are to each other, how they came to be here, and what their fates will be. It is brilliant and breathless storytelling, my darlings, not because of the telling and the backstory, and certainly not in spite of it. Chorus alone holds the audience for nearly ten minutes with the power of their tone. Their voice. Their attitude.
The audience could watch the entire play and not miss a smidgeon of the plot—not even the backstory, really—without the Chorus expending so much time and energy telling it. Anouilh’s dialogue within the play, at one point or another, touches on nearly everything Chorus mentions. But the audience’s experience of the story, emotionally and intellectually, is rendered completely different by the attitude rather than the facts. The audience rides the ensuing tragedy the way Anouilh wants them to, at the speed he sets, at the level of dread he desires, and with the knowledge the characters themselves are denied. The audience has been let in on secrets only retrospection can provide.
In short, Chorus delivers a beautifully successful prologue.
So let’s break it down a little bit.
The first line Chorus speaks is, “Well, here we are.” In those four words, Chorus establishes we’re all in this together. That might not seem like a big deal unless and until you understand the play ruthlessly examines resistance and collaboration under an authoritative government. That “we” is a harsh invitation to examine one’s complicity.
Throughout Chorus’s opening monologue, they treat the audience as an insider, as someone who understands, as someone who will appreciate not only the information, but the bits of snark that go along with it. Chorus shows up again later in the play to expound on the comforting blamelessness of tragedy, to ask why dirty work must be done at all, to close the play with a short speech that brings us right back to the beginning with, “And there we are.”
The writerly equivalent to Chorus would be an omniscient viewpoint—an outsider’s voice who knows everything the characters have yet to learn—and it’s underscored by closing the circle with similar phrasings and audience-chat at beginning and end.
But the same critical pieces—voice, focus, and stakes—will ride as equal purposes with successful prologues of any viewpoint.
Voice sets the tone for the reader’s experience, and this matters regardless of viewpoint. Prologues cue the reader to expect a little extra information, so a viewpoint that’s a tad more inclusive, a tad more open to sharing details privy only to the viewpoint character, will be more successful than a viewpoint that might be a tad more miserly with its revelations. It’s the difference between eavesdropping on a conversation and having the asides whispered to you. Prologues are the latter.
Focus gives the reader subtle cues as to what will be important in the pages ahead. For an example that’s likely more well-known than Antigone, consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The first four lines tell us this is not a love story, no matter how much we might want to make it into one. It’s a story about the breakdown of community and family and civility, and the consequences of hate. After that prologue, we know there will be bloodshed even as Nurse lovingly teases Juliet, even as the Friar tries to manipulate a bloodless solution, even as Romeo awakes in their wedding bed. The prologue doesn’t spoil the story. It changes the way we experience it.
Above all, a successful prologue establishes stakes that are often barely understood by, or completely/mostly/partially unknown to, the story’s primary characters. These are the threats others don’t yet realize is breathing down their necks, the events that turn seemingly-rational decisions into noose-tighteners. These are the deaths Chorus tells us will happen because “When your name is Antigone, there is only one part you can play.”
Few prologues are so straight-forward as that, but they do lay out hints and inferences aplenty. There’s a reason A Game of Thrones begins with its deadly prologue. There’s a reason Shakespeare wanted to set out parameters at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a reason Shakespeare opted to implore the audience to provide “imaginary puissance” at the start of Henry V, and I’d say only about half that choice came from struggling with the limitations of the performance medium. (After all, the play’s “Chapter One” opens with a MASSIVE explanation of Salic law.)
Any of these stories without their prologues would be vastly different experiences. Better or worse? That’s for the reader to decide, my darlings. Some readers love the frame; some consider it an arrogant intrusion. Some readers enjoy the multiple purpose a prologue can serve; others resent it. And in the end, it’s up to the individual reader. Not the non-existent collective.
Will any of these pieces guarantee a perfect and reader-grabbing prologue? Be not silly, of course not. They’re simply the guidelines I’ve tried to follow as I write my own prologues. (You can check the Look Inside feature here to assess if I was successful or not.)
But thousands of additional words could be written about successful prologues that do few or none of these things well or at all, but do other things with amazing triumph. And even if you create the most masterful prologue, some will say you suck. Some will say you’ve resorted to a storytelling crutch that no proper writer would deign to snort at in public.
Some will say, “Cool, there’s a prologue!”
But most readers don’t have a passionate stance on prologues. They want a good story, and prologues are simply another tool intended to tell a different kind of tale. Like every other tool, it should be used with deliberation and purpose, not because it was the first thing that came to mind.